Scientific Name: Ursus americanus americanus
- There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America.
Life Span: Bears may live up to 30 years in the wild. The oldest documented wild female bear in Virginia was 30 years of age when it was killed and the oldest male was 25.
Habitat: Incredibly adaptable, black bears occupy a greater range of habitats than any bear in the world. Bear home ranges must include food, water, cover, denning sites and diverse habitat types. Although bears are thought to be a mature forest species, they often use a variety of habitat types. Black bears can be found all along the Appalachian Mountains, in the Piedmont area, as well as sporadically along the coast. They prefer habitat that provides cover, such as a densely wooded mature oak forests or swampy area in the coastal plain, and easily accessible food resources.
Distribution: The American black bear is found only in North America. Black bears historically ranged over most of the forested regions of North America, and significant portions of northern Mexico. There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America. Black bears reside in every province in Canada except for Prince Edward Isle, and in at least 40 of the 50 states in the US. In the eastern United States, black bear range is continuous throughout New England but becomes increasingly fragmented from the mid-Atlantic down through the Southeast.
Of the three bear species (black, brown, and polar bears) in North America, only the black bear lives in Virginia. Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most Virginians. However, bears are found throughout most of the Commonwealth, and encounters between bears and people are increasing. A basic understanding of bear biology and implementing a few preventative measures will go a long way to helping make all encounters with bears positive.
Adult black bears are approximately 4 to 7 feet from nose to tail, and two to three feet high at the withers. Males are larger than females. Black bears have small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, large non retractable claws, a large body, a short tail, and shaggy hair. In Virginia most black bears are true black in color unlike black bears found in more western states that can be shades of red, brown or blond. The muzzle is brown and there is an occasional white chest blaze.
Depending on the time of year, adult female black bears commonly weigh between 90 to 250 pounds. Males commonly weigh between 130 to 500 pounds. The largest known wild black bear was from North Carolina and weighed 880 pounds. The heaviest known female weighed 520 pounds from northeastern Minnesota.
Solitary or Social?
Black bears are generally solitary, except females caring for cubs. Adult bears may be seen together during the summer breeding period and occasionally yearling siblings will remain together for a period of time. On rare occasions, yearling bears may even stay with the adult female until the next denning season. Bears may also gather at places with abundant food sources.
Daily Activity Time
Black bears are typically crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), but can be active any time of day, particularly if there are food resources nearby.
Female black bears have smaller home ranges (1 to 50 square miles) than males (10 to 290 square miles). A male’s home range may overlap several female home ranges. Bears may move further in times of less food like early spring or during poor mast crop years. Dispersing yearlings, especially males, looking for new home ranges may also travel a great distance. Adult bears have been known to travel over 95 miles in a year, and will occasionally mark trees with their claws, especially during the breeding season.
Breeding and Cubs
Female black bears mature as early as three years old. Breeding occurs from mid-June to mid-July, but in the eastern deciduous forest, mating season can extend into August. Female black bears usually breed every other year and cubs are born from early January to mid-February. The cubs are born very nearly hairless and weigh 6-12 ounces (less than a pound!). Anywhere from 1-4 cubs are born at a time and are raised by their mother for about 1½ years. They are able to leave the den with the adult female in the spring and they disperse during their second spring. First-year cub mortality rates are about 20%, primarily due to predation (foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, other bears), abandonment by their mother, or displacement. Adult bears do not have natural predators except humans.
When the mother is ready to breed again, she will send her yearlings to fend for themselves during the summer months when food is usually abundant. Always hungry, these yearling bears, particularly the males, will seek easy sources of food. The ability to access human related food sources can spell trouble for these bears.
Bears may feed up to 20 hours per day, accumulating fat (energy) prior to winter denning. An adult male can gain over 100 pounds in a few weeks when acorn production is heavy. Depending on weather and food conditions, black bears enter their winter dens between October and January. In Virginia, most bears in mountainous areas den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, and brush piles in timber cut areas, open ground nests, and man-made structures (e.g., culvert pipe, firewood lean-to, etc.). Dens are usually lined with a bed of leaf litter and they have been found up to 96 feet above the ground ( they are good climbers.)
Bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning. Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. On occasion they may venture from their dens, walk about, and return to denning. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early May.
Mange and Black Bears
Mange in Virginia Bears
Virginia’s first mange-affected bear was diagnosed in a bear from Rockingham County in 1994. From 2014 to 2017 reports were sporadic and primarily focused in the northwestern mountain counties of Frederick and Shenandoah. Since 2018, reports have increased in frequency and geographic spread, and mange has been confirmed in 14 counties. DWR asks anyone who sees a bear showing signs of mange as described below to take photos, note your exact location (take GPS coordinates, if possible), and submit this information to the VA Wildlife Conflict Helpline at email@example.com or (1-855-571-9003).
What is Mange?
Mange is a highly contagious skin disease, caused by a mite, which affects many wild and domestic mammals. DWR is actively working to understand the disease and the mite that is causing this disease in Virginia’s bear population. Results to date indicate that the most common cause of mange in Virginia bears is Sarcoptes scabiei, which is a mite that burrows into the skin and can only be seen with the assistance of a microscope.
How Does Mange Spread Between Bears?
Currently, there are many unknowns related to the occurrence and spread of mange in bears. Research efforts are underway to understand these processes. Mites can transfer to a new host when an unaffected animal comes into direct physical contact with an infested host. In addition, mites that fall off an infested host can persist in the environment and may infect a new animal that enters a site contaminated with mange mites.
Because bears are relatively solitary, the biggest risk for environmental transmission likely occurs under conditions where they congregate, either naturally (e.g., dens) or unnaturally (e.g., garbage cans, bait piles, bird feeders and other food resources).
What Are Signs a Bear Has Mange?
The clinical signs of mange are a result of damage to the host’s skin by the burrowing mite, the immune reaction of the host’s body to the mite, and the physical tears in the skin that occurs through scratching. Clinical signs include:
- Intense itching
- Mild to severe hair loss
- Thickened, dry skin covered by scabs or tan crusts, often around the face and ears
- Animals severely affected by mange may exhibit altered behavior and poor body condition
The extent of these clinical signs is variable, ranging from hairless areas on the ears and face or small patches along the body in mild to moderate cases, to hair loss and lesions covering almost the entire body in severe cases. Severely affected bears are typically emaciated, lethargic, and often found wandering apparently unaware of their surroundings.
How Does Mange Affect Bear Populations?
Although mange can be a cause of mortality in Virginia black bears, there is currently no clear evidence that the disease is limiting bear populations in Virginia or in any other state, including areas where mange has been present for many years. Additional research is being considered that could provide information on survival, movements, transmission routes, and potential susceptibility of certain populations in Virginia.
What is DWR Doing About Mange in Bears?
DWR takes the problem of mange and its potential implications on black bears seriously. The most important step right now is continuing to work with the public to collect reports of mange-infested bears. Over the past three years, the information gathered from these reports and submission of biological samples has helped DWR to tailor response protocols and provide better information to the public, both of which depend on the severity of the infestation.
Accurate data on mange-affected bears is helping us track spread and potential modes of transmission and create procedures to quickly confirm cases in new areas. This data is also being shared cooperatively with neighboring states where mange is present so that we can work collaboratively to determine long-term solutions and potential impacts on bear populations.
There are still many unknowns about mange in black bears. Bears are resilient animals and some do survive infestations of mange. DWR evaluates each report on a case-by-case basis to determine a response. For many bears that are still in acceptable body condition and behaving normally, DWR does not recommend humane dispatch. They are monitored and are only humanely dispatched if they become severely affected (poor body condition, altered behavior, and/or unlikely to survive). Reports of mange in new areas outside of the 14 county zone are responded to in accordance with established field protocols to quickly assess whether an animal is infested with mange or not.
Can Mange in Bears be Treated?
At this time, there is no known, effective, long-acting treatment for mange in wild black bear populations. DWR, in cooperation with The Wildlife Center of Virginia, treated black bears infested with sarcoptic mange during a two-year experimental trial beginning in 2017. While hair regrowth and resolution of skin abnormalities were observed in treated bears, upon release back to their home range, the majority of these bears became re-infested with mange and exhibited even more significant clinical signs within approximately one year of their release.
In addition, ongoing research in other states has not demonstrated the long-term effectiveness of treating bears with mange. There are potential negative consequences of treating bears, including human exposure to the drug if a treated bear is consumed by humans before the drug has been metabolized. Therefore, DWR does not consider treatment as a viable option at this time.
What You Can Do to Prevent the Spread of Mange
Minimize the congregation of bears (and other animals) by removing or securing potential attractants.
Discontinue feeding birds or other wildlife. If a mange-infested bear has been reported or seen in the area, stop feeding pets outside and/or pick up any uneaten food and food/water bowls.
Move outside garbage or compost containers into a bear resistant shed, garage, or other secured location or prevent access with electric fencing.
Continue to report all suspected cases of mange to the Department through the VA Wildlife Conflict Helpline (firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free 1-855-571-9003). Photos or videos of the suspect animal are extremely helpful.
Visit the DWR Black Bear webpage for more information on living with black bears in Virginia as well as additional information on mange in black bears.
What if I Harvest a Mange-Infested Bear?
If a hunter harvests a bear with signs of mange during an open bear season (regardless of condition/degree of infestation), they must utilize their bear tag and report the bear at the time of harvest because this information remains a vital element of DWR’s bear management program.
Because humans can contract mange, handling of the bear carcass isn’t required, and the bear does not need to be removed from the place of harvest.
A photo of the bear (at the time of harvest) along with GPS coordinates or specific location should be collected.
IMPORTANT: The harvested bear should also be reported to email@example.com with the photo and conformation number from reporting the harvest. DWR will evaluate the submission and contact the hunter regarding license status or to collect additional information on the harvested bear’s condition. If you do not have access to email you may call the VA Wildlife Conflict Helpline as soon as possible (1-855-571-9003), however there may be some delays when reporting by phone.
Best Management Practices for Possible Exposure to a Mange-Infested Bear
- Handling of a mange-infested bear should be minimized to avoid unnecessary exposure. Hunters should take precautions if handling and/or disposing of the pelt and carcass. These precautions include wearing disposable gloves, using a permethrin-based insect repellent on clothes/gear (as instructed by the label), bagging gloves and any other disposable equipment after use, and disposing of them in a dumpster or similar location. Hands and arms should be washed thoroughly with soap. Contaminated clothing should be washed and machine-dried with heat or placed in a freezer overnight to kill any mites. If the carcass of a bear with signs of mange is removed from the harvest site, the hunter should try to dispose of the pelt by double-bagging or returning it to the site of harvest.
- Hunters should contact their veterinarian to discuss options for any hounds that may have come into contact with a mange-infested bear or an area occupied by a mange-infested bear (e.g., den, bedding site, etc.).
- Equipment (dog leashes, dog box, etc.) should be disinfected (e.g., 40% bleach solution or other disinfectant cleaner for equipment and clothing) if suspected of being in contact with a mange-infested bear or with a dog that has come into contact with a mange-infested bear.
- Contact your health care provider for more information related to a potential human exposure to mange.
Last updated: September 20, 2021